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    GROCERY: Spices: The heat's on

    A strong public appetite for ethnic foods and taste excitement is spicing up seasoning sales.

    By Bob Gatty

    "Herbs and spices make life better. They create emotion like nothing else you can put into food." -- Chef Paul Prudhomme

    As the face of the nation changes, influenced by millions of immigrants with different tastes in spices and unique culinary traditions, the taste buds of mainstream America seem to be growing bolder, as well. Consumers across the country are becoming more adventurous in their own kitchens.

    In fact, the heat is on. Bold is big, and so is variety in flavors. This increased interest in seasonings and spices also plays into two other major developments that affect most consumers these days: the need to eat healthier and save time in the process.

    "People are getting more adventurous," says Jamie Brent, the category manager at Wild Oats Markets, who manages all of the spice blends, rubs, and seasoning preparations for the 111-store chain headquartered in Boulder, Colo. "People are buying more spices, and trends are getting bolder and stronger, particularly at the higher-quality end."

    It's not just specialty operators such as natural and organic food retailers that are experiencing this trend and seeing the impact on spice and seasoning sales. Quincy, Mass.-based Ahold USA's Stop & Shop and Giant Food stores in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions are seeing the changes, too, and are adapting accordingly.

    "We're definitely very pleased to have people looking for these products," says Chris Mazza, "enhancers" buyer for the chains. "If the demand is there, we're going to carry it -- and [demand is] there."

    Mazza is talking about demand for spicy dry and liquid rubs and other seasoning blends that can help busy home cooks imitate the recipes they enjoy in restaurants or see created by famous chefs on television. "If we're able to cross-merchandise these with the butcher shop and the poultry and fish counters, it offers an excellent opportunity for increased sales. We're seeing some excellent volume movements," he says.

    Brian Frey, corporate communications marketing assistant at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, says the company is experiencing "strong customer demand" for gourmet, international, and ethnic spice blends.

    "Customers are more aware of ethnic and foreign cuisines, in addition to being more willing to try new, and in some cases exotic, flavor profiles as a result of food media exposure, and customers are looking to try the same flavors and dishes that they learn or hear about from these sources," explains Frey.

    "Spice sales in general have been strong and growing over the past year, with many new flavor line extensions coming to market as customers continue to demand unique flavors that allow them to explore new taste and cooking experiences," he adds. After consultation with managers and buyers, the chain sets the plan for the category in 138 corporate and 81 independently owned and operated stores in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland. "The spices that seem to be in the highest demand are gourmet spices and international/ethnic blends such as curry and Herbes de Provence."

    Ethnic influence

    Harry Salazar, a Dallas-based restaurant chef who writes a newspaper column for a Hispanic-American publication and until recently hosted a nationwide cooking show for Hispanic-Americans, wonders why so many mainstream supermarkets seem so slow to capitalize on the growing taste for ethnic seasonings.

    "I think supermarkets could do a little better and have a wider variety of herbs and spices -- more real 'back home' stuff," says Salazar, "like chipotle peppers and various chilies. People really will pay anything to make themselves feel at home."

    Salazar has developed a special spice blend that he's marketing to help consumers give that "back home" taste to their dishes without a lot of effort. One blend, his Dry Spice Rub, is made for grilling beef, brisket, ribs, pork, and chicken. It comes in a small cellophane bag tied with strings of straw and garnished with two plastic jalapeno peppers.

    "Supermarkets are starting, but they're not getting the whole picture," he says. "Give them some time, and they'll catch on. We're the largest-growing segment of population in the U.S."

    According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia in Athens, the Latino population generated $653 billion in spending power in 2003, a number expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2008. Moreover, by 2010 the current 10 million Hispanic households are expected to exceed 13.5 million, compared with fewer than 6 million in 1990, according to the New York-based Conference Board.

    "Hotter flavors are becoming more popular," says Salazar. "A lot of chefs have been introduced to the traditional way of making Mexican food through their employees. Tex-Mex food is not even close. When you have real Mexican people from different regions of the country, they introduce new flavors and methods, and the chef gets to take the credit."

    "Bold flavors are big, and convenience is big," says Paul Prudhomme, owner of the famous K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans' French Quarter. "I use pepper as an enhancer, first mixing herbs and spices together, and then putting the pepper on at the end. If you grew up with it, you knew that Mama put a lot of ingredients in there, and the red pepper would immediately run your taste buds."

    Over time, Prudhomme has developed a line of Magic Seasoning Blends, which has turned into a thriving company with nationwide distribution and sales. "We started in 1983 with seven seasonings for specific purposes, such as salmon or barbecue, and now we have 16," explains John McBride, v.p., sales and marketing for Prudhomme's company. "It makes sense for a lot of people on the run. It makes you feel like you're cooking from scratch, and it looks like you worked a lot harder than you really did."

    "Hot is very important," says Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations and consumer affairs for Hunt Valley, Md.-based McCormick & Co., Inc. "And international flavors are growing rapidly. Consumers are looking for heat in different ways. They like more flavors, because they've been introduced to more flavors at restaurants."

    Keeping spice racks fresh

    All of this poses challenges for the supermarket category manager, Harrsen acknowledges. "You need to make sure that you're getting the turns for the grocery store, and that you're going to retire some products that were popular 10 years ago but aren't now, and replace them with the ones people are looking for."

    An example, she says, is cumin, used popularly in taco seasoning and Southwestern food. "Ten to 15 years ago no one had any idea what it was," she says. 'Now it's in the top 20 most popular spices."

    Tastes change regionally, she notes, and that means the spice aisle needs to be managed regionally and at store level, to meet local customers' tastes and desires.

    Wild Oats' Brent agrees. While the company has a basic set of 84 individual spices and blends established for chainwide use, the variety is adjusted based on regional tastes and demand.

    "There's a nationwide set with regional tailoring," he explains. "Markets differ, so we'll endeavor to put more of an ethnic mix in areas where that's needed."

    Brent believes the growth of prepackaged seasoning blends and rubs is a response to the interest in bolder taste, as well as the busy lives most Americans lead. "More stores all the time are coping with the conflicts between having good food and dealing with a busy lifestyle," he says. "Now you can have a small pleasure that even busy people can pull off in their own kitchens."

    Bold tastes and the use of spices help when consumers try to reduce their salt or fat intake, as well. "People are looking for flavor," notes Magic Seasoning Blends' McBride. "If you take the fat out and the carbs out, the flavor often goes out, too. But to put flavor back in, you use something that has zero carbs and zero calories. Other than sodium, you're putting back flavor that makes food healthy and enjoyable."

    That's an especially important factor for Hispanic consumers, observes Salazar, who points out that the Hispanic community suffers from a high rate of diabetes and obesity. "By using the right blend of seasonings, we can cut the fat and not the flavor," he says. "It's one of the things that I focus on when I speak to groups in my community."

    Above all, Prudhomme believes that the sense of adventure and desire for bold tastes reflect the fact that many consumers are interested in experimenting with flavors and want something different. "I think people want variety," he says. "Variety today is king."

    Salazar agrees. "One egg can be cooked 101 different ways, so think about that. Herbs and spices -- seasonings -- can make all the difference."

    By Bob Gatty
    • About Bob Gatty Bob Gatty is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer who specializes in covering the food and convenience industries.

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